Sorry, Tesla Fanboys: The Best Zero-Emissions Semi Runs on Fuel Cells

Toyota's Project Portal and a possibly game-changing semi from upstart Nikola Motors might prove FCEVs are the winning tech for the long-haul industry.

Last month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk rode onto the dais at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, California aboard a futuristic semi truck. He exited the vehicle, collar popped, to introduce what looked to be a sleeker version of the colossal, decidedly unsexy commercial vehicles that rumble endlessly across America—and received the type of hysterical fanfare usually reserved for the Beyonces and Biebers of the world. This marked one of the most anticipated, and curious, new-vehicle reveals of 2017: the Tesla Semi, a battery-electric-powered long-haul truck. 

Tesla Semi Convoy
Tesla

In his signature #humblebrag tone, Musk ticked off the Class 8 truck’s impressive capabilities: It can tow 80,000 pounds, the most allowed on US highways, for a range of 500 miles. It has aerodynamics better than a Bugatti Chiron, a unique central seating position, and comes standard with enhanced AutoPilot, meaning it should never jackknife. Also: it's guaranteed not to break down for one million miles; it has a shatterproof windshield; and it implements a kinetic-energy-recovery system (KERS) in such a way that it will never need brake pads. Plus, with a motor on each of the four rear wheels, it can rocket from 0-60 mph in five seconds flat—one-third the time of the average diesel semi. Even fully loaded, that number increases to a scant 20 seconds, or a full minute faster than its smog-belching contemporaries. When towing up a five-percent grade, the Tesla can reach speeds of 65 mph, which is 20 mph faster than a diesel.

Taken in aggregate, these features and numbers would greatly benefit a trucker’s route in both speed and cost savings. They are eye-popping metrics; almost unbelievable. Which is perhaps why some are having a hard time believing them. 

More important than what Musk said during his November announcement was what he didn’t say. For instance, there was no mention at all about the battery pack that will power the Tesla Semi to these magical thresholds. There was no mention of total weight or cost, which are arguably the two most important variables for long-haul shippers.

In terms of charging these unknown batteries, Musk promised a 400-mile recharge in the course of about 30 minutes. Based on recent estimates in Bloomberg New Energy Finance, hitting those numbers would require a charging system ten times more powerful than Tesla’s own Superchargers—currently the fastest consumer charging network in the world. The cost building stations that could hit those figures would be profound, as would be the potential stress on the electrical system from multiple trucks charging simultaneously.  

Bloomberg estimated that in order to fulfill Musk’s promises the truck would require a battery capacity between 600 and 1,000 kilowatt-hours. Assuming a down-the-middle number of 800 kWh, that would necessitate a battery of more than 10,000 pounds, with a likely price tag north of $100,000. Musk also claims the Semi will be 20 percent less expensive than a diesel truck per mile—but that is with customers only paying $0.07/kWh. Experts estimate that Tesla will have to pay, on average, a minimum of $0.40/kWh* for "green" electricity—meaning the company would have to heavily subsidize charging costs for fleets of trucks sucking down terawatts of electricity.

So, in order to hit Musk’s stated targets, Tesla will require batteries that don’t, as far as anyone knows, exist; charging capability faster than anything on the planet; and rates far below current market value. 

“I don’t understand how that works,” electric vehicle analyst Salim Morsy told Bloomberg. “I really don’t.” Investor’s Business Daily dubbed Musk's claims “monuments of envelope pushing.”

“The biggest concern that I have is that this is a typical Elon Musk ‘shiny object’ announcement to prop up Tesla’s stock price and distract from all of the issues he is having with Model 3 production,” an engineer associated with the hydrogen industry, who asked to remain anonymous, told us, referencing recent production delays and Tesla's loss of over $1.3 billion year-to-date. 

“I don’t mean to be negative; I do believe in battery technology and its merits, and I also believe that we will continue to see significant improvements in battery cost and performance during the coming decades. But as a scientist and engineer I have always found Elon Musk’s lack of scientific accuracy and ability to overstate and exaggerate truth, and get away with it, very annoying and disingenuous.” 

Tesla did not respond to requests to clarify these apparent discrepancies for this article.

The Truth About EV Trucks

Musk is not alone in the world of heavy-duty battery-electric trucks. VW recently announced a $1.7 billion investment towards developing electric powertrains for trucks and buses. Daimler, the world’s largest truck maker, unveiled an all-electric heavy-duty concept dubbed the E-FUSO Vision ONE at the Tokyo Motor Show, in late October. Daimler’s Class 8 truck promises a significantly more modest 220-mile range, with a payload 1.8 tons less than its diesel counterpart, and utilizing a 300 kWh battery pack. On paper, these figures make the E-FUSO Vision ONE more plausible than the Tesla Semi.

Of course Musk, a man who has promised to colonize Mars and builds spaceships to commute to the International Space Station, has never been known for making anything less than bold announcements. But shorter-range BEV trucks do have a place in the transportation ecosystem. This is known as “last mile" and "short haul,” where deliveries are made inter-city, or within 100 miles. In such a capacity, the Tesla Semi could be greatly successful. The semi truck business is a $30-billion-per-year industry in the United States alone, so there’s plenty of money to go around. But the Semi’s utility in true long-haul applications remains questionable.

Project Portal, a Real-World Zero-Emission Semi

Toyota has logged more than 4,000 development miles in a zero-emission Class 8 truck pulling drayage-rated cargo. This proof-of-concept semi, dubbed Project Portal, boasts 670 horsepower, 1,325 lb-ft of torque, and a 200-mile range. Rather than being powered strictly by battery pack—in this case, a comparatively small, 12kWh unit—Project Portal also utilizes twin fuel cell stacks plumbed from the Toyota Mirai consumer vehicle

Project Portal has been moving goods around the Port of Los Angeles since April, and on October 23 expanded its routes to distribution warehouses and nearby rail yards. The idea is to collect data while the truck performs real-world drayage duties, its itineraries increasing as the study progresses.

Like the Tesla Semi, Project Portal also boasts impressive acceleration versus a traditional diesel truck: 8.9 seconds to travel 1/8th of a mile versus 14.6 seconds. Unlike the Tesla Semi, however, it’s already at work in the real world, even moving supplies and auto parts for Toyota throughout Southern California. Its numbers are verifiable.

In order to supply the Project Portal truck, as well as a growing fleet of FCEV semis as the project scales in size, Toyota announced last week that it would build the world’s first megawatt-scale hydrogen power station at the Port of Long Beach. The power plant will generate 2.35 megawatts of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen each day, enough to supply power and fuel to 2,350 homes and 1,500 FCEVs, respectively. Moreover, the Tri-Gen plant will generate so-called "green hydrogen" because it will be powered by 100-percent renewable sources, like local farm bio-waste. (Currently, most hydrogen is created via “cracking” natural gas, meaning splitting the CH4 into two H2 molecules and a free carbon atom.) Toyota could then claim the Project Portal trucks to be zero-emission from well-to-wheel.

Nikola Motors Arrives on the Scene With Bold Claims

A recent surprise player in the FCEV semi game is Utah-based Nikola Motors, makers of an announced Class 8 truck dubbed the Nikola One, a 320 kWh-powered tractor-trailer that will reportedly generate over 1,000-hp and 2,000 lb-ft of torque. Nikola Motors has also set the formidable goal of building a proprietary refueling station network across America, with over 700 planned H2 stations to be constructed in the next 10 years. As ambitious as that sounds, Nikola has an innovative business plan to scale up its stations. 

"We’re selling to fleets that run the same route every day,” says Nikola Motors CEO Trevor Milton. “So they’ll put an order in for 500 trucks, and we’ll build the stations before they come online.” A medium-size station will be constructed on each end of the route, allowing Nikola to establish flagship stations in each of those two terminal cities. With a range between 500 and 1,200 miles, depending on terrain, for their Nikola One, these stations can be quite far apart. Nikola plans to start with 16 stations located in the Midwest and East Coast, to be completed by 2019, at a cost of about $10 million apiece. Initially, there will be four test trucks running in 2018, with a planned 250 by 2019, and a total of 750 by 2020. Nikola plans to hit full production in 2021.

Rather than through a traditional lease, Nikola’s business model will be to charge customers solely on a per-mile basis. Nikola estimates the cost of a diesel semi runs between $1 to $1.25 per mile—this includes fuel, lease, tires, warranty, service, maintenance, etc.—though Milton says that with the Nikola One a driver is paying "anywhere between 20 to 40 percent less than that."

"You don’t have to wait for 3 years to get your money back—you get your money back starting from day one,” Milton says. 

While customers pay per mile (from $0.85 per mile for cheaper models up to $1.00/mile for the most expensive) all other costs of running the truck save insurance—from wipers and tires to all maintenance and fuel—are covered by Nikola Motors.

“That’s the golden egg," Milton says. "How do you provide something that has no emission, that has better performance at less cost? And that’s what we’ve been able to do,” he says. “You won’t even be able to buy a diesel in 10 years because you’re going to be losing over a zero-emission vehicle.”

With over 8,000 trucks reserved in their first month of unveiling, Milton has no doubt they will have the necessary customers to fill out the initial 750 truck order, and more. “We’re on track, probably, to being more than 10-15 years booked out once we hit the assembly line," he says. "We have more customers than we know what to do with.”

As far as Tesla's news, Milton believes the Semi will be successful for short-haul work, estimating the truck’s real-world range will probably be around 350 miles—not nearly long enough for long-haul purposes. 

“Their battery alone will weigh more than our entire truck,” he says, estimating the Semi’s lithium-ion pack will weigh about 15,000 pounds. 

"We don’t really see them as a competitor on our end, just because our truck can outperform their truck in every category, every time, in every situation," Milton says. "And [Nikola One can do] it two to three times further than they can, at a 10,000-pound weight difference. But it’s good that they’re coming in teaching people that electric can work, because we need all the help we can get in the industry to prove electric trucks work.”

Competitors or colleagues, Musk and Milton share a capacity for eyebrow-raising claims. When we first spoke with Milton in the spring for a longer feature on this site about the current state of the global hydrogen industry, he claimed he would require every Nikola station to produce 100 percent of its hydrogen via renewables like solar energy—a stipulation that would make the Nikola One, like Project Portal trucks fueled by the Tri-Gen bio-waste-powered plant, truly zero-emission from wheel to well. 

“We will produce all the H2 on every one of our stations onsite via electrolysis,” Milton said at the time.  

The math didn’t appear to add up. Using National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) algorithms of energy production via solar cells, we deduced the lowest-capacity stations, at 12,500 kgs, would require a 540-acre solar farm to produce the necessary H2. We followed up with Nikola for clarification, and the company responded that, according to their calculations, they would each require “just over 218 acres.” Even with this considerable reduction, the idea that 700-plus stations across America would each be connected to a 218-acre solar fields seemed highly unlikely.

When we spoke more recently, Milton had softened his stance. 

“I’ve definitely lessened on that, but it’s more of a philosophy, not as an actual message,” he said. “We have to take energy from the grid, but the way we get that energy is guaranteed that it’s zero-emission. We just don’t want a gigantic diesel plant powering our hydrogen.”

Electric Trucks Help BMW Plant Reduce Emissions
BMW

Instead, Milton now says, one-third of Nikola's energy will be produced on-site, while the remainder will be bought from other green sources, whether that means from renewables, from power plants at excess capacity, or the grid via guaranteed zero-emission sources. 

"There are multiple ways we’ll be buying and getting energy into our hydrogen production, but it’s not one-size-fits-all, that’s for sure. And if we made it sound like that, we apologize; we were mainly just trying to educate people that we are going to mandate that almost all of our energy is zero-emission from production to consumption.

“We’re evolving every month, as we get all these orders going in. We’re learning. There’s little things we’re tweaking, but ultimately our overall philosophy is it’s our duty and our goal to get rid of all the diesels and all the emissions on the road. And we’ll get there soon, it’ll just take some time.”

Regardless of the historical challenges inherent to starting any automotive brand, some people are hopeful about Nikola's future.

"Building up a hydrogen eco-system entails many—and very different—elements,” says Yorgo Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General of the hydrogen-advocacy group Hydrogen Europe. After invoking the myriad doubts that Elon Musk faced when launching Tesla, he continues. “Some areas of a hydrogen-based economy need visionaries who have ambitions that do not seem plausible at the moment but are doable, and absolutely make sense in the long run.”

The Realities of a Zero-Emission Future

The point here isn’t to denigrate Tesla specifically, or BEVs in general. In order to achieve a zero emission transportation future—the goal of an increasing number of nations worldwide—many think that we should not have to choose between BEVs and FCEVs. Each has its clear advantages. As we’ve outlined in detail before, a zero-emission future will likely require the right solution for specific applications. Battery-electric power excels in smaller vehicles and for shorter ranges, while FCEVs are better suited for heavy-duty jobs that demand intense energy consumption and longer ranges. It need not be a zero-sum game.

Musk has accomplished enough already to warrant the benefit of the doubt for his bold Semi claims. Just this summer, he made a bet on Twitter that he could install a 100-megawatt battery storage facility in the South Australian outback within 100 days—or it would be free. Many doubted the billionaire futurist’s wager, but sure enough, by December 1 the facility was online and functional. During his comet-streak career he has made a habit of unflinching claims doubted by the masses, and has often enough enjoyed the last laugh.

However, Musk also has a history of disparaging hydrogen and FCEVs as legitimate transportation alternatives, calling them “incredibly dumb” and “bullshit.” This position is not only erroneous and misleading, but also dangerous and counterproductive to the same zero-emission future that he repeatedly touts. As the founder and CEO of the most valuable BEV company in the world by far—in fact, Wall Street considers Tesla the most valuable American automaker, having surpassed General Motors in April—it benefits him tremendously if that future is strictly BEV-powered.

The potential problem with Musk’s Semi assertions wouldn't be that they're possible embellishments about the capabilities of a BEV truck—he certainly wouldn't be the first CEO to promise the impossible to prop up stock value—as much as their potential to salt the earth for FCEV semi truck growth. Claiming that BEV semis are a better solution than FCEVs would be fine on a barstool or in a vacuum, but the incredible power of Musk's voice in the tech and transportation markets could devalue the viability of Class 8 vehicles powered by fuel cells.

Case in point: Bloomberg reported that immediately after Musk’s Tesla Semi announcement, share prices of truck and truck component makers dropped. They recovered when analysts had time to sift through the available information, but Musk potentially hobbling a critical cog of a zero-emission future runs contrary to his stated goals of saving the planet.  

In the end, if Tesla, Daimler, Toyota and Nikola can get their respective FCEV and BEV semis off the ground, the impact would be tectonic. Using average estimates, every single alternative-powertrain truck replacing a similar ICE-powered vehicle would remove about 173 tons of CO2 emissions each year. Scale that to a fleet of 1,000, or 100,000, or a million trucks, and the impact on the climate and air quality would be profound. Musk should be free to do what he needs to in order to ensure his company succeeds, except when it values Tesla's bottom line over that of the planet.

*Note: This article was updated to reflect that the stated price of $0.40/kWh is specifically for so-called "green" electricity harnessed from renewable or zero-emission sources.